Building bridges over social barriers with a banjo


Peter Mezoian brings his skills in playing and storytelling to Mountain Chalet tonight

Music has always been the warmest and most-effective bridge to break down social barriers and insecurities, and bring people together to support a good cause. It unites ideas and efforts, and in the case of world-renown banjoist Peter Mezoian, it allows him to use his skill to help those who are paralyzed to walk again.


 Mezoian, 48, is in the Aspen area this week performing at three private fundraisers for the Basalt-based Bridging Bionics Foundation, which helps fund efforts to further research and development for exoskeletons and bionic technology.


The South Portland, Maine-native has played all over the world, with shows in more than 50 countries — even playing in Antarctica — and has a passion for the interaction between audience and performer.


“I was lucky to see a lot of exotic [places],” Mezoian said Monday.


His style is that of a modern-day bard, mixing storytelling with mesmerizing fret work on the banjo.


While the majority of his shows in the Roaring Fork Valley are private, the charismatic tenor banjoist is also presenting a public show this evening at the Mountain Chalet. Tickets are $20, and doors open at 6 p.m. with music beginning at 7:15 p.m.


Mezoian is no stranger to the Aspen area, having performed at the Wheeler Opera House in 2010, and returning to play a fundraiser at the Crossroads Chapel for local high school student Mackenzie Langley, who was paralyzed in a car crash in 2014.


On Monday, he played an “unplugged” show at the home of locals Ted and Cindi Davis that brought down the house. Mezoian plays the plectrum (pick) banjo, which is a 22-fret, four-string model, conjuring up sing-a-longs from the audience.  


For many, the banjo conjures up images of smokey Appalachia and foot-stomping, high-energy bluegrass around a campfire high in the mountains. But the versatile instrument also has a more classical four-string side, that spans the gamut of musical tastes and lends itself to jazz, big band, rock and roll, and blues flavors.


Mezoian walked the audience through a musical history of the instrument, transitioning from early Irving Berlin and George Gershwin numbers, into ragtime, some Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe, then on to jazz numbers from Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, and all the way to the classic age of rock and roll with the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. He even surprised the crowd with the Monkees’ classic, “I’m a Believer.”


Mezoian astutely noted that 1960s rock and roll marked a change in music in which songwriting lyrics became just as important as the melody.


In the early 1980s, he attended a performance by jazz banjoist Jerry Allen, and saw a new way to play: merge the banjo and storytelling by regaling the audience with fun and enlightening tales.


“When I hear good soloists, and Jerry Allen was the one, then suddenly I see that this could be a solo instrument, but Jerry was also a storyteller,” Mezoian said. “He’d have a story threadline going through, play another song, at maybe 16 measures, and it would become a story with four different songs in it. But it would never go on for too long.”


Ted Davis first saw Mezoian play while on a cruise ship, and has been amazed by his skill ever since.


“When I first saw Peter play, I knew that he was one in million,” he said. “Even in his early twenties, his technique and ability to express himself through his instrument was like no one that I had ever seen. You could tell immediately that it was not simply that he was a gifted virtuoso, but that Peter had dedicated his life to the perfection of his art form. He has never wavered in that pursuit and the result is something truly glorious to be share by all who hear him play.”


Mezoian, who plays a 1931 custom Vega Vox Deluxe model that used to belong to Allen, became enthralled with the banjo after seeing comedian Steve Martin perform live. He then quickly signed up for lessons after watching the film “Pennies from Heaven” and has been at it ever since.


“That was the impetus for the whole thing,” he said. “Steve Martin was the impetus, I was 14 years old, and the only banjo teacher I could find was a guy named [Don] Nichols, a devout four-stringer, and you have to remember, with a banjo, four or five [strings], rarely do they meet.”


He said the two-styles are vastly different, with five string being used in classic bluegrass, and four-string offering a more classic sound.


Mezoian added that musicians like Del McCoury, Alison Krauss, and Bela Fleck have brought the banjo into the mainstream, though they play the five-string model. The joy is seeing the difference first hand, demonstrated by a true expert of the trade.


“Four-string and five-string banjos are in such different worlds,” he said.